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An Open Letter to Rescue Site Webmasters
(My website pet peeves!)

Dear Rescue Site Webmasters,

As I update my rescue lists, I've seen many, many styles of rescue site design over the years. Most are appealing and user friendly, but too many are not.  I hope here to give you some constructive ideas in designing your rescue site. 

Your time is most always donated. Your time, skills, and resources are often scarce. You're probably not getting much help if any at all, often with not much cooperation from others in your organization either. It's a tough job and you're doing the best you can with what you have.  I really do thank you and truly appreciate what you are doing. You all have saved probably millions of lives. 

I really just don't want to see design problems get in the way of your mission!

Remember why you're building your site. Getting out your message and saving animals should be your #1 priority. This does not require perfection of the form, but you do need function. This is not an exhibition of fancy web site building skills. The KISS rule should always apply (Keep It Simple...). You want everyone to easily see what you have to offer. Competition for good homes is tough enough without making it any harder on your viewers.

So here are my Ideas for making a rescue site more user friendly, not necessarily in any order. If some of it may be beyond your capabilities, that's okay, just do what you can. If any of it is against your design taste, that's okay as long as you're aware of how it may affect your viewer. These are just suggestions; you're welcome to take what you want and leave the rest. 
 

  • Be sure to have your location information clearly listed on your first page. Make it clear where you're located, city and state, and what territories you cover. In large states, tell what part of that state are you cover. If you're nationwide that's fine, make that clear and still tell people where you're based up front. This can also reduce confusion among different rescues with similar names. This is my #1 problem and pet peeve with rescue sites. 
  • Please have clear contact info and identify yourself with your, or your organization's, full name.  I've seen main pages without even the name of the organization on it, let alone decent contact info anywhere  I just looked at a rescue site requesting donations without so much as an email address anywhere to be found. If someone wanted to help that rescue, that webmaster has made it impossible to do so. 
  • Please do not  block right click on your contact info page. I understand the necessity of preventing theft of photos and other proprietary information, but for a contact page it can be handy for people to be able to copy and paste your info in order to pass it on to someone else. 
  • Some viewers cannot just click on an email link to send mail, notably those with web based email. They must copy and paste addresses into their email. So, please spell out email addresses. There are millions of people who use hotmail or yahoo mail for valid reasons, so you shouldn't make it hard for them to contact you.
  • A few unnecessary bells and whistles include comet cursors, scrolling tricks and other special effects.  It's sometimes cute the first time or two but all it usually does is take longer to download, distracts from your message and can get annoying very quickly. Remember that many, many people don't have a lot of computer skills, even copy and paste is beyond some incredibly good animal people. So don't make your site a challenge or make computer newbies think too much about what's happening to their screen. Ask yourself, "do I really need that?"
  • Those splash pages that look so pretty (when they work) and only say "enter here" deserve special mention. I just personally don't see the point on any rescue site, especially if it's slow loading. They make me nuts; I want to cut to the chase. You should only need one main page.
  • Please don't use JavaScript or other scripts unless it's absolutely necessary, and that's rare. It can be difficult to do well, can cause lots of errors, crashes lots of browsers, and usually makes things take even longer to load. If it's important enough for a floating window, then it's important enough to be put on the page itself. 
  • Music midis get old very quickly and also can add considerably to downloading time. Few midis really sound good. Even if it does to you, it doesn't to those of us with crappy sound cards in our laptops. Those who may be illicitly surfing at work really don't want to get caught by surprise and may get in trouble. If you must have sound effects or music, at least have it turned off on when loading and then give the option to turn it on. 
  • Fancy fonts often don't work as intended. They only work if your reader has that exact font installed; otherwise their computer tries to substitute fonts with potentially bad results. Use common default fonts or font families as much as possible and save the fancy ones for your graphics.
  • Not everyone has the latest and greatest software or hardware, and that may include you . Good animal people are not necessarily good computer people. Occasionally they have the computer skills of your average flea, but they'd give an animal a great home. Don't exclude them!

    I've found from my site statistics that at least 25% of my viewers have browsers other than Internet Explorer, and an even larger segment have older operating systems. Win 95 and 98 is still in widespread use on the same internet that Vista uses. Firefox is making big gains, and there are tons of Mac and Linux users out there too. Older systems tend to have older software. Some pages coded for only the newest MSIE, often using Front Page, come up on older and alternate browsers with photos overlapping text, teeny unreadable text, or sometimes even totally blank. So double check your work on a variety of browsers.

    Download a copy of Netscape 4.x, available at: http://browser.netscape.com/releases
    and check how your webpages look on an older Mozilla browser. A huge minority of people still use those and you don't want to exclude them.  As the TV networks have taught us, going for the lowest common denominator is often the best bet for the widest audience. 

  • The inverse also applies. If you are working with an older browser, check what your site looks like on newer ones. Html evolves with every big new browser release. There's an unfortunate trend for different browsers not to recognize code that others might be fine with. You need to be sure it will still look ok on those too.  Download a copy of Firefox at: http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/

  • If you use style sheets, check how your site looks with them disabled. Is it still readable? Even more critical is to check how your style sheets work in different or older browsers. Some style sheets can sometimes result in your site being just about completely unusable with overlapping text in places you probably didn't want it, like this:


    (If you recognize your site here, please realize you are FAR from the only site with this problem.. I don't intend to single you out, it was just the latest example I came across)
  • Macs and PC have different color codes for some colors. Please use "web friendly" browser-safe colors that are the same in both formats, so we're not trying to read dark red text on a dark green background, or bright red on electric blue. I've seen too many sites that require used of sunglasses, and some that are just plain undecipherable due to poor color choices. I've also seen colors be different from Netscape to MSIE, yet another reason to make that check.
  • If you can, look at your site on different computers and see if it's acceptable, or get honest friends to take a look.  Think of how it may look to those without good vision. Different screens will always show colors slightly differently, and sometimes it's a big difference. 
  • Be very careful if you use a patterned background. What seems a light grey shadow on your screen may be too dark on many others, and may obliterate your dark text. Don't let it interfere with your message.
  • Time how long it takes your page to load on a dial up. Yup, it's still in use out there, especially in more rural areas. I personally try to keep page totals to no more than 100 - 150k or so for faster downloading, including graphics and photos. I hope for pages to at least mostly load in around 1 minute. Much longer than that can get annoying, especially if someone has to click around several pages to find what they want. Be careful of photo file sizes.
  • Be careful constraining photo sizes. Please don't use large photos and constrain them for the page, make it the right size you need. And when you try to make a 500x300 pixel photo fit into a 300x300 space, it gets pretty distorted.  If you want a thumbnail photo, it's usually best to make a small thumbnail photo separate from the photo it's for, making the thumbnail a link to the larger one. All this makes for faster loading and better looking photos too.
  • Spell check is a good thing. I should definitely use it more. Misspelling your breed or organization name is a major sin.
  • People may link directly to internal pages if you have something interesting they want to share with others. It's easier to do this when you don't use frames
  • Do not advertise your site if it's not built at all, or has almost nothing on it but a logo. I actually get this a lot in my site submissions. I know a starting a new site is exciting, but please wait until there's really something there before telling people to go look at it. 
  • If you move your site, whenever possible please try to leave a page at the old URL behind, with forwarding info. If you move internal pages within your site, leave a forwarding page there too, with at least a link to your main page. Many people bookmark internal pages and 404 messages makes people wonder if you shut down the site or something, when all you did was rearrange a few things.
  • Please, please do NOT put graphic photos of abused animals on your main page. I'll immediately leave a site like this and others will too. A picture may be worth a thousand words but brazen attempts at graphic guilt trips are not likely to help you very much. Some of us really resent this when it's "forced" upon us without warning. Your main page should be child safe for an average 8 year old without risk of giving them nightmares. If you feel the need to use photos like this, put them on internal pages and use links with content warnings.
  • Please have breed specific information if you are a breed specific rescue. What is the downside of owning that breed? Pros and cons beyond a copy of the breed standard might be quite helpful to prospective homes. and  may help keep dogs from going to the wrong homes for their breed traits.
  • Try to think ahead as to the long term maintenance. (I'm pretty guilty of this one sometimes.) Don't just toss up a page and forget about it if anything on it can change. If possible, try not to commit to continually update things you don't have time for. If you put up all the adoptable dogs, will you or someone else be able to keep it current? The same goes for events calendars, available animals, and contact info pages.  Will someone be able to check off-site links occasionally? It's pretty annoying when more links are broken than not on a link page. Yes, maintenance can be a huge pain, believe me, but please do what you can. 
  • On pages that do need maintenance, especially link pages or available animal pages, please put a "last updated" date. Then viewers have a clue know to expect outdated info if the "last updated" date is old. You'll also have a better chance of keeping track of what's recently been worked on.
  • You get what you pay for with website hosting companies. Beware! Some companies offer practically free webspace if you agree to having their ads show up. Because of "targeted advertising" which homes in on key words used on your website, too often those ads are for selling pets from what could be the worst sources. Plus these ads not only slow down your website, or even crash some computers, they often include tracking and spyware which you don't want to inflict on your viewers. With a little research and shopping around, you can make a website without any of these problems for around $120/year, including the domain. It's well worth it.
  • Do not use the same company for your website hosting and domain registration. It's much easier to change hosting companies when necessary if they don't control your domain name too. Otherwise they can literally hold your domain name hostage if they feel the need.
  • Back up back up back up. It really hurts when a server problem loses all your website files and hard work when you don't have current copies. 

Some of the sites listed on the following link will explain more about design and the technical aspects: Website Building Resources 

Thank you for reading this far, I hope some of this is helpful. 

-Leilah's Mom

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